Editorial

U.S. Democracy: Will the Last One Out Please Turn Off the Lights?

democracy n. 1.a. Government by the people.

(Webster's Third New International Dictionary)

Ever-lower voter turnout in U.S. elections is a perennial story. Now comes a study, reported in the Washington Post in February, that actually makes you wonder why voting rates are still so high. Analyzing a national survey, political scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse confirmed that most Americans are not interested in the issues and don't want to get involved. Almost half thought that the country would benefit if "successful business people"-like Enron's Kenneth Lay, perhaps?-and/or "unelected experts" made the big decisions. We hate debate, especially when there's strong disagreement. We can't bear to see compromise at work and can't handle multiple issues at the same time. Democracy, basically, turns us off.

As baseball legend Casey Stengel said to one of his losing teams, "Can't anybody here play this game?"

We in the United States seem to have forgotten how, though we once knew. In 1858, for instance, thousands turned out in the hot summer sun to hear seven very long debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. But since then, human ingenuity (much of it American) has created television, shopping malls, and the Internet. Many of us in the United States long ago stopped consuming to live and began living to consume. The role of consumer has expanded with our waistlines, squeezing out the role of citizen. And as long as the promised-land machinery keeps working for most of us, we'll probably go on supersizing and leaving the governing to somebody-anybody-else.

Politics 101: Governments exist to juggle competing interests. Autocracies do it by naked force; only democracies can fully embody and honor the popular will. But if that will is not actively and systematically expressed, government responds to narrower interests. No matter what issues you care about, they can't be addressed legitimately unless everybody pays some attention and sticks in their oars. Absent this engagement, power concentrates at the top, leaders pursue momentous policies without clear, broad support, and abuses of civil rights occur that would not be tolerated by a citizenry less remote from politics.

Democracy cannot survive if we forget how it's supposed to work. The more we forget, the more we consent to our infantilization. If we need reminders, we can look to Kerala in India or Porto Alegre in Brazil, which enjoy thriving grassroots democracies. But we'd better be quick: once our democracy has been bought up, co-opted, and safely put behind glass, we'll be reduced to asking What's happening here? and Who is in charge? It won't be democracy, and it won't be us.

 

Thomas Prugh, Senior Editor